Pope’s Reference to Birth Control at UN Prompts Questions From Media

Prompted by Pope Paul’s reference in his UN speech to birth control, the U.S. bishops’ press panel continued its discussion of the subject for the working press hours after the Pope’s return to Rome.

Father Francis J. Connell, C.SS.R., former theology school dean at Catholic University of America, Washington, said the Pope’s reference seemed to favor the traditional stand of the Church against any form of artificial birth control, while some of the other panelists thought his reference was in a general way to the sacred character of human life, possibly referring to abortion and sterilization as well.

“The essential point of the Pope’s reference,” said Father Francis McCool, S.J., Scripture professor at Rome’s Pontifical Biblical Institute, “is the sacred character of human life which nobody should attack.”

Reporters questioned the panel also on the possibility that the Pope might leave the question of the morality of contraceptive pills undecided for now, just as the council has done in the dogmatic field on the question of Scripture and tradition as sources of revelation. Although the council has completed its document on revelation, which is expected to be promulgated soon, possibly Nov. 1, it has deliberately refused to settle the issue, significant in ecumenical discussions, of what is the primary source of revelation — Scripture or tradition.

Father Robert Trisco, Church historian at Catholic University of America, said it would not be the same to leave a moral question such as birth control up in the air. Although theologians can continue to discuss the doctrinal issues involved in revelation, people must act on the basis of a decision on moral issues such as birth control.

Many theologians maintain there is no room for doubt on the Church’s teaching regarding the pill. Others do not, said Father Trisco. It is possible that some theologians would interpret the Pope’s refusal to speak definitively on the subject as amounting to a “probable doubt” contrary to the Church’s official stand, he said. Some theologians might maintain that since there is doubt, married couples could act in this doubt and use the pill. Therefore, he said the significance of a definitive statement by the Pope is greater in the practical order than if he were to pronounce on a dogmatic issue such as revelation.

Is there a theological gap in studies on sexual matters because of the Church’s fixed position on the subject over a long period of time?

Father John J. King, O.M.I., superior of the Oblate Fathers’ house of studies in Rome, did not think so. He referred to the vast amount of writing by theologians on the Sixth Commandment, “almost more than on any other commandment.” But because of the “enormous advance in medical evidence over just a few years time,” he said, it will “take time for theologians to study this and integrate the new knowledge into their teachings. We are in a new era — not in theological studies regarding sex so much as in the advancement of medical science.”

Father McCool, on the other hand, thought there might be such a “gap” resulting from the fact that most of the theological work on sex has been considered only in the light of the nature of the act of intercourse. Now, he said, “we are considering the relationship between the act and married love itself, and between the act and the tremendous problems of world population.”

“There is much work still to be done,” he said, “and the Pope’s special commission on marriage problems is trying. But it is hard to do it in a rush. You can’t institute a crash program in the realm of ideas.”

Father King said the Church’s teaching on artificial birth control is that it violates the “natural function of the act of intercourse, and for this reason it is immoral.” It is on this very basis some theologians are now questioning the Church’s traditional stand, he said, since they see the sexual act now as on a higher level than merely a physical act.

He recalled though, that Pope Pius XI and Pope Pius XII said artificial birth control violates both the law of nature and the law of God. The validity of their teaching does not depend on nature alone or on the new concept of what is “natural,” he said.

In response, Father McCool pointed out that “some theologians don’t admit the Church is so committed to this stand that it can’t change it.”

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